The truth will set us free

The article's author, John Evans

8th December 2020

When John Evans saw our recent advertising campaign, he realised how much he had been influenced by the 'overcoming' narrative around stammering. Here he challenges that narrative and shares the things that have helped him on his journey to freedom. 

Since I began stammering at the age of five, I have spent a good deal of effort in managing my stammer, and I think I have been quite successful in dealing with avoidance and struggle. There are few speaking situations I would now avoid — not even giving a talk to hundreds of people or taking part in live radio. I have learnt to relax into speaking — and I am pleased that people generally find my voice pleasant and soothing.

When people who knew me as a child say, "John — I’ve noticed that you don’t stammer anymore," I happily agree that I do not generally stammer, but I explain that I manage a stammer. I add that in my opinion I am a good speaker and that my voice and the way I talk have become important assets for me.

And so, I was surprised when the recent Stamma campaign, 'Find the Right Words', made me realise how much I had been influenced by the 'overcoming' narrative — to the extent that a feeling of failure still seemed to lurk within me.

One of Stamma's posters for its 'Find the Right Words' campaign
One of our 'Find the Right Words' campaign posters

The 'overcoming' lie

Being part of a self-help group for many years taught me that many people who stammer feel we are not as brave as we should be. We tend to think that if only we had more courage and resolve, we could 'overcome' stammering and achieve fluency. When we think that, we are buying into the commonly held opinion that stammering is a nervous problem and that control of one’s nerves is all we need to deal with it.

The 'overcoming' narrative makes a wonderful story....but this contains a lie that can poison the life of us who stammer.

People without a stammer often have trouble talking when they become very nervous. They also notice that people who stammer sometimes appear nervous and ill at ease, even frightened, when they speak. People without a stammer may also look back to situations where they 'felt the fear and did it anyway' and found that worked for them. So, it is quite reasonable for them to say that what is needed is to control one's nerves — to 'overcome' the fear by a direct, courageous attack.

And the 'overcoming' narrative makes a wonderful story of someone trapped by fear rousing themself to take triumphant control of their life, finding their voice and their place in the world. 

But this contains a lie that can poison the life of us who stammer.

In fact, people who stammer have usually tried all our strength and willpower. And we have found that these weapons, on their own, do not work. That should be no surprise — the fact is that you cannot 'overcome' a stammer simply with willpower. Our typical experience is that many of our efforts work for a little bit but lose their effectiveness over time. We also find that pushing ourselves into more and more difficult situations with greater efforts of the will can cause more and more intense struggle.

The fact is that you cannot 'overcome' a stammer simply with willpower.

So the lie can grow within us, that we stammer because we are weak, cowardly and lacking in moral fibre — or even unintelligent, as if we were unable to think of the words we find it hard to say.

And that is by far the worst thing about stammering — that it can lead to our feeling inferior and unworthy of respect, even of love.

Things that have helped my journey 

What we need is to challenge such lies that we have absorbed, even from well-meaning people around us. We need to feed on the truth that will set us free: that we are people of dignity, courage and intelligence, worthy of respect and love.

I have found a number of things that help me on this ongoing journey into freedom:

  • I need to brush off encouragements to ‘get a grip’; it is not that they are always unkind, just misinformed.
  • It has been good to ask how family, friends and colleagues actually see me. Very often they have more understanding than I might expect, especially if they know me well, and they are always less concerned about my speech than I am.
  • It is good to be with people who love me with my stammer.
  • It is good to be with people who stammer who have come to a place where they are comfortable with their stammer, have seen that it is just a small part of who they are, and realise that it has brought good things as well as difficulties. 
  • It is good for me to be with people who stammer who have discovered themselves as people of worth and dignity.

But, finally, and perhaps most important of all, I realise that truth needs to be balanced with kindness. I need to learn to be kinder to myself.

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